HarassMap: Tracking Sexual Harassment in Egypt with SMS

Posted by AnneryanHeatwole on Feb 23, 2010

For women in Egypt, sexual harassment is an unwelcome but all too common part of life. In 2008, the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights released statistics stating that 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women in Egypt reported exposure to sexual harassment. HarassMap, a project based in Cairo, plans to give women an outlet to report instances of haramessnt. Combining FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi’s mapping platform, HarassMap aims to be a voice for women. 

Rebecca Chiao, who currently heads the development of HarassMap, worked for the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights; in 2005, she started a campaign to raise awareness against sexual harassment in Egypt. She left the ECWR in 2008 and used some of the things she learned from that campaign to shape HarassMap. However, the project is still in development because it has not yet secured the necessary funding. Chiao says, “We’re basically just waiting for a funding partner so we can get it up and running.”

Developed by NiJeL, a US-based company that creates online mapping systems, the project will run on the Ushahidi platform, funneling SMS submissions onto a map that will display where harassment is happening. JD Godchaux, executive director of NiJeL, says that HarassMap will be the first project by NiJeL that maps data collected through SMS submissions. Says Godchaux on why maps will be a particularly effective means of tracking sexual harassment: “There’s nothing more powerful than seeing a map with all these points. […]These are all real, these are all people who’ve taken time out of their life to send in a message to us.”

In both her work at the ECWR and with the development of HarassMap, Chiao has faced the challenge of getting people to understand what sexual harassment is and why it’s a problem:

For the first couple years of the sexual harassment campaign [through the ECWR], things were going really well in terms of the idea being spread. And there was a lot of opinion change in the public. When we started running the campaign, you couldn’t say ‘sexual harassment’ in public; people were offended by it, and they didn’t know what it meant – they thought it meant child molestation or rape. And there’s this blame the victim attitude here towards it, where women didn’t feel as though they could say anything. […] And this changed a lot, and there was a lot of public pressure for the government to do something.

Unfortunately, although a law against sexual harassment was proposed in 2008, it was never voted on and there are currently no laws against sexual harassment in Egypt (although according to The National, a new law was recently drafted). The goal of HarassMap is to once again draw attention to the problem of sexual harassment in order to bring the issue back to light, and hopefully push the government to pass laws that give women more legal recourse against their harassers. According to Chiao, it’s very difficult for women to report sexual harassment to the police; they can, but it’s a difficult process and often futile. In fact, some police forces have taken an active part in street harassment at times. Strict anti-harassment laws would hopefully give women more leverage to report problems.

The Technology

When Godchaux began his work developing HarassMap, he knew he wanted to have an SMS-based system that  displayed the information on a map. He says they considered developing the system themselves, “but after a few weeks of thinking about it and talking about it, it became increasingly clear that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel on that. The Ushahidi engine will do really well here I think.” 

Ushahidi allows for information to be submitted by users via SMS, Twitter, and webforms, although the concentration will be on SMS submissions.  It is noteworthy, however, that in most instances of Ushahidi deployment to date, submissions from the public overall have been extremely low (possibly due to lack of awareness of the platform by the general public) and SMS submissions constituted just a minor percentage - in some cases just a handful of submissions.

Chiao hopes, however, that there will be greater uptake.  She notes that “any person on the street will be able to send an SMS to a number. The number is tethered to the Ushahidi site; a volunteer will validate the report and then map the incident. At the same time, the data will be collected for analyzing and [we can] look for harassment hot spots.”

The group chose to focus on SMS reports due to the ubiquity of the mobile phone in Egypt. The information sent to HarassMap will be anonymous, but will be compiled in order to gain a better picture of the current state of harassment in Cairo. Chiao hopes that once there is hard data showing the widespread problem of harassment in Egypt, that it will once again compel the public to push for anti-sexual harassment laws.

Where is HarassMap going?

The HarassMap team is currently comprised of six volunteers who are focused on securing the funding to get the project launched. Chiao says that between the necessary marketing expenses and the technology expenses, it will cost a minimum of $25,000 to launch for the first year, with the cost decreasing in later years. 

Says Godchaux, “We’re in the process of looking for funding; the technological development is, I don’t want to say trivial, but in the grand scheme of the project it’s the easy part. The difficult part is having funds to do the advertising campaign, making sure that people in the community in Cairo know the short code to use to submit data, that we have a committed team of people there who are ready to verify data when it comes in.”

Both hope that once the project launches it can serve as a basis for similar programs in other countries. But as the group works to secure funding for launch of the project, it remains to be seen how the project will affect both women’s reactions to sexual harassment and occurrences of sexual harassment in the first place. Says Chiao,

We’re hoping that awareness will spread through this – that when we tell people about the service they’ll also be hearing about sexual harassment. And they’ll be hearing about it in a way that’s not like,  ‘stay home’ or ‘get veiled.’ We’re presenting it as a violation of women’s rights – it’s your right to walk down the street safely, and if someone violates that right, you have an action you can take.



HarassMap: Tracking Sexual Harassment in Egypt with SMS data sheet 12141 Views
Countries: Egypt


Why not approach Naguib Sawiras who has recently decided to dedicate his time for public welfare. I am sure he can spare $25K to put his companies name on it.

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